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Keeping the Faith – “Wobblies! A Graphic History” and 100 Years of Labour Martyrs

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Title: Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World
Contributors: Mike Alewitz, Seth Tobocman, Sue Coe, Sabrina Jones
Edited: Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman
Published: Verso Books, 2005
Length:
306 Pages

 

“Happy May Day, friends and fellow workers!”

It is hard to imagine these words would once have been enough to land the speaker in a cramped jail cell, crammed with dozens of fellow workers like so many salty, tinned fish. ‘Wobblies!’ chronicles the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World from a promising start in Chicago. We are taken through several major strikes and biographies of bohemians and revolutionaries by the comic’s several contributors. Curiously, what unites many of these tales is the suffering of their subjects.

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A ghoulish portrait of organizer Frank Little’s murderers.

Perhaps there is nothing surprising in this. There is a peculiar allure to martyrdom. Saints, mystics and secular heroes of humanity the world over have been canonized by their suffering long before any state or patriarch could place the laurels on their bloodied brows. Hagiography, the genre of saints’ biographies, owes much of its enduring popularity to stories of the suffering of those early Christians.   In a modern context, today is a commemoration of the deaths of the Haymarket Martyrs, Chicago anarchists who went to the gallows for a crime none had committed. “Wobblies” continues in this tradition.

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Famed “hobo doctor” Ben Reitman wasn’t even a wobbly, but that didn’t stop the San Diego thugs that did this to him.

In its entirety, the book is a collection of short narratives surrounding major events in the history of the IWW. It begins with a detailed recounting of their founding convention, rich in historical personages such as perennial Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs and Haymarket widow (and ass-kicking anarchist heroine) Lucy Parsons. From there, it outlines several major strikes, particularly those associated with the Western Federation of Miners, and the textile strikes in Lawrence and Paterson, a high watermark for union organizing under the IWW banner. This is followed by more strike accounts, then biographical sketches of the highly eclectic bunch of radicals who swelled the ranks of the IWW during its heyday and kept its memory alive through long decades of irrelevance. It ends with two modern episodes. The first details the life of environmentalist and Wobbly Judy Bari, while the second recounts a port strike in Jefferson, Indiana.

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Calling life in the mines “hard” would be a tragic understatement.

Nothing in this critique is meant to belittle the value of the struggles, or the bravery of participants. These are struggles that shaped the lives of generations of Americans by putting a pressure on state and capital alike. The fights found between these pages paved the way for the eight hour day, for wage increases and safety regulations. But they also fell short of the ultimate goal; a society in which the wealth of society is shared equally amongst those who produce it.

These vignettes are a mixture of victory, defeat and sentimental reminisce. Shot through all of them are scenes of agony, of sometimes lethal suffering. Martyrdom is an old and popular theme in heroic narrative, and echoes from Calvary to Tahrir. Looking at these graphic re-tellings, it is impossible not to be reminded of paintings of saints caged in cells, pierced by arrows. They are ennobled, it would seem, by their suffering.

Two graphic depictions of martyrdom: LEFT: Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of holy Christian death, among other things. RIGHT: martyrs of the Egyptian Revolution are depicted in the cartoon "The Massacre of Maspero" The text reads: 'I died as a martyr on October 6, in a tank.' (the war with Israel) / 'I died as a martyr on October 9, under a tank.' (Courtesy of CartoonMovement.org)
Two graphic depictions of martyrdom: LEFT: Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of holy Christian death, among other things. RIGHT: martyrs of the Egyptian Revolution are depicted in the cartoon “The Massacre of Maspero” The text reads: ‘I died as a martyr on October 6, in a tank.’ (the war with Israel) / ‘I died as a martyr on October 9, under a tank.’ (Courtesy of CartoonMovement.org)

 

The success of the Lawrence strikers came at a high cost.
The success of the Lawrence strikers came at a high cost.

So it is for the workers in the pages of “Wobblies!” They are shot, beaten, jailed, defamed, tortured, bombed, ridiculed and betrayed. The outcome of the struggle is secondary to these latter-day passion plays, showcasing the divine agony of the downtrodden. Anguish is often compounded by anguish, with strikers blamed for the deaths of other strikers.

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Big Bill Haywood addresses the founding convention of the IWW

There are courage and beauty both in the struggles of IWW organizers and members. Their suffering is a credit to their devotion. But it is their vision that matters most to the future, not their pain. They were not shot so our eyes could blear at the mention of their memory. Not for nothing are the words associated with Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn, organize!”

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In other words, the image of Frank Little that captures our imagination is not his battered corpse hanging from a Montana Bridge, but of the cantankerous old bastard hobbling around America on two crutches. With one leg and one eye, Little walked farther and saw more in the name of industrial struggle than many activists could imagine today. As he is said to have remarked “All we’re gonna need from now on is guts!”

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It is fitting, then, that the image of Judi Bari that concludes her story is not one of the car bomb that took her legs, but of Bari fiddling. It would be too easy to dwell on the pain of these Wobblies, to accept the tacit coupling of corporal agony and moral ecstasy. But on this May Day, and every day, we have to remember that this is not why blood was shed. This is not why bones were broken.   Our antecedents suffered not so that we could romanticize them,  but so that we could follow their lead.  The general strike is our best hope, and it will take one big union to get there.

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There’s hope for us yet.
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The Times They Have A-Changed | Review of “SDS: A Graphic History”

By Hugh Goldring, Staff Editor

Written largely by alternative comics legend Harvey Pekar, “Students For a Democratic Society – A Graphic History” is a vexing text.  Published in 2008, it breezes through a decade of radical organizing with moments of resistance narrated by witnesses to the history of the SDS.  Along the way we learn the names, faces and stories of many of the most famous activists associated with the legendary student group, as well as some of their mentors.  It is both a formal history and a collection of brief individual accounts, some spanning decades or a single afternoon, of former members of the SDS.
Continue reading The Times They Have A-Changed | Review of “SDS: A Graphic History”

“Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me” by Harvey Pekar and JT Waldman

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“Every ethnic group thinks they are the chosen ones. … ”
–Harvey Pekar

Title: Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me
Author: Harvey Pekar and JT Waldman
Epilogue: Joyce Brabner
Published: in 2012 by Hill and Wang (Novel Graphics)

Learning about Israel and Palestine can be intimidating. It seems that anyone with any time vested in research of the subject  has an extremely confident opinion that their view is the correct one. But what is the controversy, anyway? What is the historical basis of the conflict with Palestine—and exactly when did it begin? Harvey Pekar’s Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me delves into that history (which many argue began anywhere between 46 and 2000 years ago…) and provides the reader with a glimpse of multiple perspectives by way of an “insider’s” criticism.

Perhaps one of the ways this otherwise dry narrative can get away with being a bit boring (it does cover 2000 years, more or less, in 165 pages) is its feel of exclusivity. Not only is it an interview with a man born and raised through the founding and early years of the Jewish state; it’s an interview with one of the comic book world’s most celebrated writers.

Harvey Pekar is probably best known for American Splendor. It was through this and other work, in a career that would span more than 3 decades, that Pekar pushed the envelope of comics, driving the idea of the medium’s abilities in the realm of autobiography and literature (enter: the graphic novel). Keep in mind that this trail-blazing began in the 1970s (American Splendor the series was first illustrated by Robert Crumb) and was almost unheard of for its time. He had said a motivation for making comics was that they “could do anything that a movie could.” How ironic that American Splendor became a movie in 2003.

Harvey Pekar was, as much as anyone else, given plenty of reasons to love Israel (his father, a Talmudic scholar, gave him the religious reasons; his mother, a communist, the political arguments). While the title demonstrates a certain sense of faith lost, this book is half historical intrigue; half autobiographical narrative of a man’s awakening to a world outside of his community, culture, and its decidedly unwavering ethos.

Certainly, it’s not the only way to talk about Israel (not even close to being the only comic about the subject), but it is unique. It’s history and autobiography; boilerplate language and the spontaneity of an interview (JT Waldman co-authors the book by way of interviewing Harvey). In this way, a comic book about this highly polarized topic finds balance, and a fresh perspective.